Regenerative Organic Certified: Setting the Standard for Soil Health, Animal Welfare, and Farmworker Fairness

Our country is facing a monumental food production crisis. Estimates vary, but according to a 2014 statement by the United Nations, our current farming practices are quickly stripping away the earth’s precious topsoil, which is essential to growing nutritious food. If we want to preserve the ability for our future generations to grow food in the soil, we need to look back to the past to help us protect our future.

Until the 1930s, our country was mainly fed by small-scale family farms that were deeply connected to their local communities. It was hard work, but sustainable in scale and ecological footprint. Since farmers couldn’t afford chemical fertilizers and inputs, crops were “organic” by default. And because families relied on their farms for their primary source of income—as well as their survival—taking a long view on the health of the farm was paramount. Every decision revolved around thinking ahead to ensure the farm could continue sustainably.

In the late 1930s, an effort to “modernize” farming began to take hold. Most of this was driven by a desire to introduce wartime technologies onto the farm. Mechanization, chemical inputs, and antibiotics were among many of the tools employed by farmers. To a degree, this was understandable. Truly sustainable farming is often subject to enormous risk, financial and otherwise. Many of the new methods reduced labor issues and significantly increased crop yields. But like many short-term solutions, these methods have caused devastating long-term financial and environmental consequences to families, animals, and rural communities throughout our country and the world.

Today, nearly 40% of the total U.S. farmland is leased, and of that, nearly 80% is owned by non-farming landlords. The average age of an American farmer is 57.5 years old, and an increasing number of peer-reviewed scientific studies point toward modern agriculture as one of the most destructive forces on the planet. In fact, a recent study by the FAO suggests that if left unchecked, modern agricultural methods could destroy up to 90% of the world’s productive topsoil by 2050.

At the same time, current estimates by the UN suggest that agricultural outputs will need to increase by as much as 50% in some countries (by 2050) to feed the global population. Current yields, even with modern technology, are only growing at a rate of around 1% annually. And it’s becoming increasingly difficult, given the extreme pressure on ecosystems as well as increased demand for natural resources such as water and productive land. It’s also becoming prohibitively expensive to continue purchasing chemical and mechanical inputs for all but the largest farm operators.

Clearly, something must change if we’re going to leave our future generations with a planet that can sustainably provide food for a growing population. The good news is we have a solution: regenerative organic agriculture.

The term “regenerative agriculture” has increasingly entered into the contemporary food discussion. As consumers better understand the connection between the food they eat and how it was grown, there’s a rapidly growing demand for more sustainable, transparent, and ethical products. In fact, recent data from the food industry group IRI suggests that sustainably marketed products now command roughly 17% in market share across nearly 36 consumer categories.

So: What is regenerative agriculture, and how can it help solve the problem?

Put simply, it’s a method of farming that seeks to sequester carbon, improve soil health, boost crop nutrients, and improve the livelihood of the animals and farmers. This is primarily accomplished by ensuring the soil is not disturbed before, during, or after harvests. This helps avoid erosion and the loss of topsoil. It’s also a proven method for capturing carbon in the soil.

Or said another way: It’s a lot like farming used to be before industrial methods took over. And it works as a solution to fixing climate change.

However, strictly regenerative farming is also highly subject to corporate greenwashing and a lack of a federal standards. Many large American food companies are now spending enormous sums to market their commitments towards a “regenerative” future. Nestle, for example, recently committed over $1B to support regenerative farming over the next five years. They also published their own standards for how they plan to accomplish and monitor their progress.

But the primary issue with these types of commitments is that strictly regenerative farming doesn’t remove many of the problematic parts of industrial agriculture. For example, farmers can still grow genetically modified crops, heavily covered in pesticides, on a “regenerative farm.” There is no federal standard, or agency, coming to follow up on whether the intended impact is happening at the farm level.

This is what led to the creation of the Regenerative Organic Alliance and their newly launched Regenerative Organic Certification, which aims to build upon the well-established and accepted USDA Organic standards. USDA Organic certification gives consumers assurance that a product cannot contain GMOs, chemical fertilizers, and sewage sludge, among many other benefits. It also prioritizes the creation of healthy soil. Regenerative Organic Certification ensures the baseline standards of organic remain in place while it also seeks to further increases biodiversity, mandates increased carbon sequestration, and importantly, ensures the highest possible standards for animals and farm workers.

Many leading natural and organic brands are quickly adopting this standard for their products, and consumers are increasingly interested in learning what it means for their health and purchasing decisions. Among the brands who’ve made Regenerative Organic products are Patagonia Provisions, Dr. Bronner’s, Nature’s Path, New Barn Organics, and Lotus Foods. And the ROC standard goes beyond food to include textiles, which are often some of the most chemically intensive farmed crops in the world. Patagonia, for example, is one of the founding members of the Regenerative Organic Alliance.

In an increasingly complex world where consumers have more choice than ever before, we need standards that help ensure transparency and real impact for the products that we buy. Regenerative Organic Certified is an important step forward towards achieving this goal. Learn more: https://regenorganic.org